Many prison inmates are both enormously vain and incredibly lazy. This is a pair of attributes that Bee was able to identify and take advantage of.
Identifying an Opportunity
The only sneakers available for purchase in prison are entirely white, and therefore, it’s not long before they become scuffed, dirty, dingy. No matter what degree of care or babying one might take with them, getting them befouled is inevitable. Some guys didn’t much care and would just rub a wet rag across their shoes from time to time if they happen to get some mud or other gunk splashed on them, but that’s about the extent of their care for their footwear. The other, more particular and anal inmate was where Bee recognized his potential clientele.
Putting out a Shingle
“Shoes Cleaned and Returned Same Day” Bee’s sign declared in large stilted lettering written with a dying red marker against a lily white piece of printer paper. Two dollars per pair was the stated price, and that was the only advertising needed. Each afternoon after returning from his mandatory GED schooling, as well as bright and early on the weekends, Bee could be seen sitting in his chair in the hallway outside his room in the dorm-like setting of our cell house. There was a plastic garbage can filled with soap and water between his feet, and he would be diligently scrubbing away at someone’s shoes. It was only a matter of days before Bee had clients enough to keep him forever scouring and prune-fingered.
As far as a hustle goes, it wasn’t perhaps the most glamorous of vocations, nor was it astoundingly lucrative, but in terms of Bee’s expenses in relation to his income, it was a genius business model. Water came free of charge with a turn of the knob, and the laundry soap that Bee used was provided to each inmate once a month as part of DOC meeting one of it’s four responsibilities to its wards—keep them fed, clothes, housed, and cleaned. Anything beyond that is a lavish luxury. To augment the laundry soap, Bee would use a bar of state soap which he pilfered with his sticky fingers from the school building or else received legit from a sympathetic sarge.
Since Bee was a state baby, and as long as he scattered his shots, he could get a bar or two per week free of charge. The soft-bristled brush he used to clean his customers’ shoes had been left behind by someone going home and was seized by Bee. His biggest expense, and only one of note, was the bleach he sometimes employed to cleanse the more stubborn spots stuck on the fabric of the shoe. A four-ounce shampoo bottle re-purposed as a bleach receptacle went for fifty cents from most porters, but Bee had a deal to get it for a quarter. More often than not, however, he’d get it for free and just clean the porter’s shoes in return. A win-win situation.
Supply and Demand
Bee accepted any business that walked up to his little workshop and had some regulars who got their shoes cleaned once a week or every few days. A couple of truly neurotic guys developed longstanding daily appointments with Bee and his bucket of suds. It wasn’t long before his new moniker circulated through the cell house, sometimes spoken in contempt or derision, but most often it was just a harmless qualifier.
With business booming, a new sign was in order, this one a better reflection of his success. The cost to Bee: zero. The artist who contributed it was happy for the challenge and the change of pace from an endless parade of making cards with flowers for sweethearts and certain cartoon characters for the kids. Bee’s new sign was painted on a 12×18 inch piece of Bristol board with the new name “Shoeshine Shorty’s.” A blue decorative curlicue bordered the edges of the sign, within which purple letters stated the same simple business model: “Shoes Cleaned and Returned Same Day,” however, the arranged price had been amended. In a non-threatening shade of green (the color of money) and simple no-nonsense lettering, the new sign advertised as follows: Cleaning outside only…….2.50
Inside and out cleaning……3.00
I never once heard anyone bemoan the price hike, and since he had the shoeshine market cornered, Bee kept busy and kept putting money in his pocket. A more industrious inmate I have rarely seen.